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Just the Facts! Close Reading and Comprehension of Informational Text
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    When Multicultural Literature Is at a Crossroads With Its Readers

    By Margaret Carroll
     | Feb 01, 2017

    78753286_x300Elementary school curricula include reading texts that introduce students to a wide variety of cultures. It seems like such a great idea! However, these stories may compound the problems of struggling readers by throwing in words from other cultures without enough context, making comprehension even more difficult. For instance, a group of ­urban, African-American students were reading a multicultural story in which one sentence caused considerable stress for the third-grade readers: “Mother wrapped the cassava bread in banana leaves and packed guavas for lunch.” The struggling third graders could not decode wrapped, with its peculiarly silent w, and had no comprehension of the direct object of the unknown verb because they stumbled over cassava (the students sounded it out well, but did not recognize any meaning). When asked why the mother wrapped the bread in foil, the students responded that they didn’t know. The teacher told the students that the mother had not used foil, but something else. The students had gleaned so little meaning from that single sentence that they didn’t know the question the teacher had posed was nonsensical.

    The teacher read the sentence aloud to the students. She asked again about wrapping the bread: Why did the mother wrap the bread in banana leaves? One student finally stated with a mimed demonstration that it would be tough to wrap bread in such skinny things. Lavell was linking the sentence to the only related experience he had, the narrow strips of skin from peeling a banana. The teacher then asked why it was that the mother had not used foil or even a bread bag. The students again had no idea.

    Use pictures

    The teacher encouraged the students to look at the picture. The students couldn’t understand why because there was no lunch preparation going on. Another student eventually said to the teacher, “The kids don’t even have shoes!” The teacher enthusiastically told the students that this observation was on the right track and asked what else they could tell about the family. A student said the family lived in a shack. Another noticed the pots did not look like they had been made in a factory or sold in a store. The teacher wondered if the family would then have plastic bags and foil. The students agreed that they might not—but leaves? Why would the bread have to be wrapped, and why use leaves? A third student said the bread would dry out if it wasn’t wrapped and, shrugging, she observed that leaves were all over in the picture and the mother probably had to use what was available. The students were really excited about their deductions. Their excitement soon soured when they looked over at the other group of children working with the teacher aide and said, “The others have read the whole story already!”

    Challenges of time and comparison

    Teachers know how to help students build comprehension, but such achievement takes time—time to explore what is already known, examine pictures, make connections, and help students conquer the text. Teachers feel enormous pressure to move through grade-level material at a rate that ensures finishing the text and provides students with exposure to all of the concepts introduced in the texts. Annual tests designed to prove “adequate” progress reinforce this sense of pressure—the burden that children feel to keep pace with their peers is substantial. No one knew if the other group had read the story with comprehension or just plugged along until they got to the end; nonetheless, the students were upset that their group was taking too long on a single part of just one sentence.

    Inner city students know many things

    This anecdote does not suggest that the inner-city, African-American third graders described here know nothing; that is far from the truth. However, they did not have the contextual knowledge to make sense of the story, a problem any student could have when reading multicultural tales. Multicultural literature, so often praised, may actually cause more stumbling and may decrease reading efficacy. The author’s and publisher’s intent—to provide students with vicarious experiences of cultures and locations other than their own—is counteracted by the difficulty experienced by readers who already lack some of the skills needed to read at grade level.

    Take the time, reuse color pictures

    The solution is for teachers to take all the time necessary for true reading comprehension and confidence, showing students that what they know (bread dries out if unwrapped) is important even when a story seems irrelevant to their lived experiences. Teachers should also use pictures as often as possible. Color pictures matter, especially to kinesthetic learners. Sharing one color picture of unfamiliar items is worth the cost of ink. Teachers can glue the color pictures into file folders with labels that can be stored and located for reuse. The file folders also help the pictures stand up to being passed around and handled.

    Opening a multicultural world is possible for all learners.    

    margaret carroll headshotMargaret Carroll, Ed.D., is a professor of education at Saint Xavier University, teaching courses in special education and instructional methods.

     

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    Promoting Family Literacy Through Connections, Context, and Curriculum

    By Nicole Taylor
     | Jan 24, 2017

    shutterstock_221160550_x300In considering ways to build children’s literacy through the home literacy environment and parent engagement, acknowledging that parents will have varying levels of literacy attainment and abilities is important. This acknowledgment is especially true for teachers working in classrooms with children representing diverse family backgrounds. Not assuming the literacy levels and engagement styles of parents is important.

    There may be a difference between parents’ and children’s school experiences, where you may have parents with low literacy skills, extensive literacy skills, or limited literacy skills in the English language. Being aware of the possibility of the factors and, at the same time, considering that despite parents’ literacy abilities they may have goals for their children’s literacy beyond what they are able to do or beyond what they were able to experience is important.

    Be mindful of having a deficit view of parents’ literacy and engagement. When someone has a deficit view, he or she may assume that something needs to be fixed or is lacking in certain families that represent a particular background. Therein lies the importance of being familial and culturally competent, understanding that there are different ways of knowing, and not automatically assuming that parents lack knowledge and skills that you must impart. Consider positive ways in which parents have already successfully educated their young children through different ways of knowing about the world and then consider ways to bridge these realities to what the child must learn in the classroom.

    The three Cs

    There are three essential ways to tend to the diverse literacy needs of young children representing diverse backgrounds. First, connect what is expected to be learned to everyday practice. Second, understand the context for the child’s home literacy environment and parent engagement. Third, transform or enhance the curriculum to meet the needs of diverse learners as necessary.

    • Connect: Focus on students identifying literacy practices in the home and community—real literacy concerns in everyday life. Trying to encourage practices that may fit into a family’s routine, especially for those representing cultural and linguistic diversity, is important.
    • Context: Foster understanding between home and school literacy experiences. Understanding wealth of knowledge parents provide to their children is important. Oftentimes, parent programs or engagement activities are created without an understanding of family background information.
    • Curriculum: Literacy learning involves key concepts and processes that include concepts of print, phonemic awareness, and oral vocabulary. Recognize there will be a wide range of experiences. Work to imbed literacy practices of everyday life. One way this can be accomplished is by having students keep a journal of the routines that occur in the home and identify which of the practices may be considered language and literacy processes to build upon (e.g., parent told child a story, parent read a story, parent and child sang a song or recited something).

    Recognizing that children benefit from diverse forms of literacy and funds of knowledge beyond the classroom is important. Schools and teachers often determine what counts as important knowledge and interactions as related to literacy. However, as you seek to engage families in children’s literacy learning, considering the dynamics and uses of literacy as it varies by family is beneficial. Your task is to draw more deeply on resources such as family funds of knowledge not only to strengthen your teaching but also benefit children’s literacy learning. Finally, as you go about your practice, consider the following questions:

    • How do families perceive their contribution to their children’s literacy learning in the home?
    • How are you engaging your families in their child’s literacy development?
    • What impact does your teaching have on families’ engagement in their children’s literacy?

    Considering these questions may hopefully guide you through the decision-making process for the most effective ways to teach literacy to young children, while promoting authentic connections, relevant contexts, and a dynamic curriculum.

    nicole-taylor headshotNicole A. Taylor is an assistant professor in the education department at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA.
     

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    Burn the Worksheets: Fire Up Student Writers

    By Ruth Culham
     | Dec 21, 2016

    culham tt 122116Forgive the destructive imagery, but it’s necessary. Tens of thousands of precious learning hours are spent doing well-intentioned but worthless activities with students every day in the name of literacy when, in fact, these activities are glowingly toxic.

    I’ve been on all sides of this issue. I’ve used traditional worksheets; I’ve used student writing as personalized writing wallets. The latter works a gazillion times better. As a young teacher myself in the 1970s, I handed out my share of worksheets. In hindsight, I realize that during this decade students may have eagerly grabbed worksheets not because they were a good learning tool but because of that mimeograph chemical high. Do you remember? Worksheets were run on a mimeograph machine and smelled so good that we’d cluster in the copy room and probably get a little happy on the fumes. Teachers who inhaled mimeograph fluid and students who didn’t complain about a test as long as their papers are just a little damp with that same chemical…well, we should have known that wasn’t good.

    Writing skill development comes with the teacher’s observation of what’s working for students and what they struggle with as they write. The teacher develops targeted lessons to help students take the next step forward, we don’t simply turn to the Internet for something to download. By the way, I just Googled “writing worksheets” and got 46,900,000 results. Astonishing. Horrifying, too. It’s as though the teaching world has taken a big detour from best practices to easy practices.

    Don’t take my word for it. Let your students help you decide the fate of worksheets in your classroom. Look at their work and your teaching for the answers to these four questions so you can form your own opinion:

    • Do your students write well?
    • Do they eagerly dive into their writing?
    • Do you see measurable improvement day after day?
    • Do you look forward to teaching writing and modeling writing with your students?

    If the answer is “yes” to all of these questions, then congratulations. You have escaped the allure of worksheets. But if two or three of your answers are “no,” then we need to talk seriously about how to take back your writing classroom so it is a more joyous, productive, and—yes, complicated (but interesting) place.

    Step 1: Ditch the worksheets. Do it. The world will not end; the sun will come up in the morning. I promise.

    Step 2: Replace those dull-as-a-board worksheets with the students’ own writing that is worked on over and over again as you teach lessons and students apply new skills.

    Step 3: Use mentor texts as the models so students learn from and are inspired by writers (not worksheets) about writing. Reading and writing feed on each other. Stephen King reminds us, “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

    And please don’t get me started on packets sent home as homework or conveniently assembled to cover a week or two of skills practice all in one place. Or for test prep. I know of one state that gave students “fun packets” at Spring Break that were nothing more than test items to practice before the state assessment scheduled shortly after the holiday. The “fun” part turned out to be coloring the cover. Wow.

    Without worksheets and packets, think of the budget monies you’ll save buying black line masters and running them off on ream after ream of paper. Here’s what I discovered: The average school of 100 teachers uses 250,000 sheets of paper annually. This school would spend approximately $7,500 per year on printing, and paper itself costs $25,000. That’s a lot of wasted money. How about asking the building administrator to instead earmark those funds for books? (I think I see you smiling…)

    Here’s another benefit of killing the worksheets: No more worksheets to correct. And if your students are writing authentically—choosing their own topics, trying new trait-specific techniques they’ve read in real books, revising with partners to make the writing sharper—you’ll have much more interesting papers to read! As a bonus, you’ll have more time to talk with students about their writing and help them improve each piece, one little nudge at a time. That has to make you happy, too. After all, isn’t the whole purpose of teaching writing to help students become strong, capable, and independent thinkers? Yes, I think it is.

    ruth culham headshotRuth Culham is a recognized expert in the writing assessment field and is known for conducting lively teacher workshops. Her current book, The Writing Thief, gives insight on how to use reading to practice writing skills.


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    Bridging the Gap for Students With Special Needs

    by Tara Hamlett
     | Dec 13, 2016

    ThinkstockPhotos-465389370_x300Here in Hartselle City Schools in Alabama, it is our responsibility to prepare every student, regardless of ability. After all, college and career readiness is about more than which school or profession a student might choose after high school—it is about community readiness, too. Literacy is a key part of that.

    When the state of Alabama enacted tougher standards for all students, we knew we had to change as well. The challenge was that, despite our best efforts, many of our students with special needs continued to perform about two or three grade levels behind their peers in general education.

    So our district formed a reading task force for students with special needs. I served on the task force along with special education teachers from each of our six schools, and we began looking for a new intervention. Since then, we have made tremendous progress narrowing the achievement gap.

    Building foundational skills

    At the time we launched our task force, we were using a reading intervention program that provided instruction in word study, fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, writing, listening, and speaking. Although we could see some improvements, we were missing something. After evaluating several programs, we decided to try the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord. My school, F.E. Burleson Elementary, was the first to sign up to pilot the program in our district.

    We began using the online reading intervention program with our students with special needs during the 2014–2015 school year. Unlike traditional interventions, the program starts with cognitive skills including memory, attention, and processing speed. It works from the bottom up to address underlying difficulties that keep struggling readers from making progress. It also targets phonics and phonological awareness, grammar and vocabulary, listening comprehension, and following directions.

    This approach resonated with me. As a psychometrist, I test a lot of children who have poor working memory skills, which directly affects their ability to learn to read. The Fast ForWord program helps build foundational skills children need to become successful readers.

    When we began, we placed students on the program 30 minutes a day, three to five days a week. In one semester, we saw a 25% increase in students’ reading abilities. At the end of the year, we saw improvement in students’ ACT Aspire scores as well.

    Taking a structured, intensive, multisensory approach

    Two or three days a week, we also break into small groups—with a maximum of three students per group—and provide intensive intervention using the Orton–Gillingham approach to reading instruction. Students begin by reading and writing individual letters and connecting them to sounds. Then they blend these letters and sounds into syllables and words, building on these skills over time.

    This is multisensory. For example, students use drill cards, letter tiles, sensory boards, hand and body motions, and songs to build their skills. Tapping into visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning modalities helps students reinforce and remember what they are learning.

    In addition, we use the Barton Reading and Spelling System, which uses color-coded letter tiles to help students connect sounds with letters. Like the Orton–Gillingham approach, it is a structured, sequential program using all the senses to help children make connections between sounds and words. 

    Achieving measurable gains

    In 2015, while many schools struggled with Alabama’s new standards, our school had gains on every benchmark and made the most improvement among schools in the Decatur area. On the ACT Aspire, which includes students with special needs (unlike Alabama’s previous standardized test), our third graders had a 22-point improvement in the percentage of proficient readers and fourth graders showed a 26-point gain.

    As a result, the Council for Leaders in Alabama Schools (CLAS) selected F.E. Burleson Elementary to be one of 14 CLAS Banner Schools for 2015. The program recognizes schools providing outstanding services for students to serve as models for other schools.

    In 2016, our students continued to achieve gains, once again improving their performance on the ACT Aspire.

    Seeing the effort our students put into our programs and how much they are improving is gratifying. Our teachers are pleased, too, because students are now ready for their instruction. We are very excited about our results, and our teachers and students are looking forward to what this year holds.

    tara hamlett headshotTara Hamlett is a special education teacher and psychometrist at F.E. Burleson Elementary, a Title I school in Hartselle City Schools in Alabama.  


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    Giraffes, Hawaii, and Bloom’s Taxonomy

    By David G. Gardner
     | Nov 22, 2016

    GiraffesFor more than 60 years, generations of teachers have used Bloom’s Taxonomy in their planning and teaching.

    The taxonomy is a means of categorizing the level of abstraction, specificity, and complexity in the questions and tasks we pose to our students. There are six levels in the taxonomy: Knowledge/Remembering,  which is the lowest level and is characterized by simple recall of facts. Next is Comprehension, which includes inference, compare and contrast tasks, and understanding information. The third level is Application, solving problems and using knowledge. Analysis asks students to look for patterns and organize parts. Synthesis is where new learning takes place, using existing knowledge and ideas to formulate new ones and to bring together knowledge and facts from different areas. The final level, Evaluation, is assessing what has been learned, including one’s own ideas.    

    Although all six levels are important, my experience as a mentor teacher, plus discussions with colleagues, revealed that many teachers concentrate heavily on the first three levels (i.e., knowledge/remembering, comprehension, application), neglecting the last three (i.e., analysis, synthesis, evaluation).

    This is unfortunate, because learning does not take place in the first three levels, but in the last three. One reason for this neglect is that many teachers find it difficult to incorporate the entire taxonomy into their planning and teaching. Yes, it can be difficult initially, but if we want to facilitate new learning, using all six levels is critical.

    I offer here a research/writing project, suitable for fifth grade and up, that effectively incorporates all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The following are the guidelines I gave my students.

    Giraffes in Hawaii

    There are giraffes in Africa but none in Hawaii. You live in Hawaii, and you’ve always loved giraffes. You decide you are going to bring giraffes to live in the wild in Hawaii, but you realize you can’t just go out and bring over a bunch of giraffes. There are many things you have to know, many questions you have to identify and answer first. Once you have the answers to your questions and the knowledge you need, you can decide whether your project will work. Here, then, is your assignment:

    After researching giraffes and Hawaii, write a comprehensive report stating whether you believe healthy giraffes brought from Africa will survive in Hawaii. “Survive” here means three things: they will remain healthy, they will reproduce, and their offspring will remain healthy and reproduce.

    Step 1: Make a list of all the questions you need to answer.
    Step 2: Research “giraffes” and “Hawaii” to answer the questions.
    Step 3: From your research, draw conclusions about the possibility of giraffes surviving in Hawaii.

    Remember: There is no right or wrong answer in this assignment. You will be graded on three things: the quality and completeness of your questions, the quality of your research (these two account for half your grade), and how well you support your final conclusion, that giraffes will or will not survive in Hawaii.

    Compare this kind of task with simply assigning students a report on giraffes or on Hawaii. Either one of these addresses only the first three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, and application. True, the assignment will sharpen research skills and may add somewhat to the student’s overall body of knowledge, but it does nothing to require or even encourage original thinking. Postulating the survival of giraffes in Hawaii, however, requires students to think at all six levels of the taxonomy. They have to know, comprehend, and apply what they know, organize it, relate knowledge from different areas to help them draw conclusions and, finally, assess their conclusions. Even the first step in the assignment, making a list of questions to be answered, requires all six levels. Questions about food, climate, terrain, and predators all require a student to organize information so as to make comparisons between Africa and Hawaii.

    Without question, of all the hundreds, if not thousands, of reports I’ve read as a teacher, “Giraffes in Hawaii” were the most interesting and the ones that demanded the most of my students.

    david gardner headshotDavid G. Gardner is an education professor at Antioch University located in Seattle, WA. 


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